Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Social-Emotional Side

This post has been knocking around in my head for a while now, so when our Valentines's Day Activity went so well on Friday, I knew that this was the perfect time to write about it all. I apologize in advance for the longest ever post.

I am a big believer in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). By big I mean huge. Gigantic. Really, I cannot overstate how much I love it. There is so much negativity and hatred in the world. Every day on the news there is another story of violence and intolerance. In our schools, I see hurt feelings, bullying, and just general meanness, not to mention the devastating school shootings that occur all too often (and even once is too often). There are ways to combat all of these terrible things; by teaching students to be kind, tolerant, accepting of others who are different than they are. Teaching them to show kindness and love to others. Some students may not be getting these lessons on empathy and love at home, so we have to try even harder to teach it at school.

There have been a few articles bouncing around the internet recently that have really made me think. The first is a blog post written by Lori Gard called What students Remember Most About Teachers. It takes the form of a letter from a seasoned teacher to a new teacher who looks stressed out and overwhelmed by all that teaching demands each day. She talks about the only thing that really matters is being there and caring about your students. She talks about how students won't remember all the lessons you planned, or how you decorated your room, or all the other things that teachers spend so much time on. They will remember YOU. The questions you asked to show you listen, your caring and concern about them as a person, and how you made them feel every day. Reading this as a soon to be new teacher was very powerful for me. While I can (and do!) spend hours on Pinterest and Teacher Pay Teachers looking for the perfect lesson ideas, and get to school way too early to put cute finishing touches on my anchor charts, the things that really matter are when I just sit down with a student and talk to them and show I care. That is what will really make the biggest difference.

Another article that packs an incredible punch is the Momastery article by Glennon Doyle Melton about how her son's teacher takes time each week to check in with her students to find out about the social dynamics of her class. The teacher has students fill out a slip of paper with the names of four students they want to sit with the next week and one student who has been an exceptional citizen that week. The papers are not about sitting together, they are the teacher's way of seeing who is being left out. Who is not being requested or nominated. This shows her the underlying social dynamics that students would never voice themselves. The most powerful part of the article? When the teacher says she has been doing this every single week since Columbine.

Our Valentine's Day Council Set-up made by two students
In our school, we do something each week called council. I had never heard of council before this school, and now that I know more about it, I really love it. There is a ton of great information here and here on how it works, but I will just give you a brief overview. Students sit in a circle and share their ideas and responses to different prompts (Who do you dedicate this council to, High point, low point, etc.). The circle is a safe place where students can share anything they want, and they know it goes no further than the people in the room (and their families). I have heard the most amazing insights come from even kindergarteners as they go around and share. Some heavy stuff can get shared, like when one student's grandparent died, or when another student's sibling had to go back to the hospital for more chemo. The kiddos are supportive and empathetic. They celebrate each other's successes and care for each other in sadness. It is amazing to be a part of, and something I really want to include in my own class.

Ok, now that I have talked your ear off with all of that, let me finally get to our Valentine's Day Council! Disclaimer- this was planned by a team of veteran teachers (not me) and I was just lucky enough to be a part of it.

It began with a read aloud of Someone Loves you Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli. The story is about a man who is lonely and sad, and gets a surprise valentine that says, "Someone Loves You." It changes his whole outlook on life, and suddenly he is reaching out to the people around him and asking questions and showing them love. He makes a whole community of friends and does acts of kindness wherever he goes. Then the mailman tells him he accidentally delivered the box to the wrong house, and Mr. Hatch is devastated and goes back to his old ways. The community misses him so they all make him new valentines, and he is happy again. Ms. G stopped the read aloud often to ask incredibly insightful questions like "I notice he is helping people now. Why is he able to help people now when he wasn't able to before? What changed?" With the prompts, the students had a great discussion about how when people feel loved, they show love to others, and noticing how others are feeling is the first step to helping them.

We went around the circle and shared a time when we showed someone else love and kindness. We also wrote anonymous messages on hearts and delivered them to under appreciated people in our own school community- the custodian, the office staff, the Librarian, the crossing guards, the lunch staff- people who students tend to overlook with their valentines. Between this activity, music, and our Valentine's Day Party (where one wonderful mom brought in these adorable mailboxes for students to decorate), there was not much hard academic instruction on Friday. However, I think this was one of the strongest lessons I have seen in my whole student teaching and field experience.

As Glennon mentioned in her Momastery article, hard academic skills are not the only important things that students learn in school. She argues that they are the least important lessons. While I may not go that far, I do believe that we need to focus on Social-Emotional skills as well. Teaching students to love each other and be caring, empathetic, and accepting people must happen in the classroom as well as at home.

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